Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Public service heroes: Shannah Segal & Sheena Samuel

Shannah Segal and Sheena Samuel lead the experience design and technology chapters, respectively, at the Ontario Digital Service (ODS). They’re brilliant and thoughtful leaders, and have brought experience from their careers in the private tech sector into government. Friends all across ODS speak very highly of working with them, and it was a real honour to hear about their experiences over the past nearly five years working in government. We chatted in late October. (Views here are their own.)

Sean: Let’s start with, who you are and what kind of work you do at ODS!

A profile picture of Shannah Segal.

Shannah: I’m Shannah Segal, and my official title is Senior Manager of Experience Design. I lead the experience design chapter at the Ontario Digital Service.

My team is comprised of service designers, UX designers, and user researchers, and we work across the government to help teams in our ministry and also inside the ODS design and research and build digital products, with a user-centric perspective.

The team is a good size, especially for a government team. We hover in between probably 27 and 30 people, and a third of those are the co-ops and interns who live in our lab. We have a unit called the XD Lab, which is part of the experience design chapter, and that usually has about 7 to 10 co-ops and interns who rotate in and out, on 4- to 16-month rotations. That’s the chapter.

Sean: That’s awesome! That’s a really cool approach. Sheena, how about you?

A profile picture of Sheena Samuel.

Sheena: I lead the Technology chapter within the Ontario Digital Service. I manage a team that comprises developers, engineers, DevOps engineers, architects, and QA automation engineers.

It’s slightly different from experience design in that we work on actually building the products, we’ve got about 15-plus products in our space. The team members are cross-functionally deployed across the team, providing different types of technical expertise.

Sean: That’s very cool. Super big fan of both those fields of work!

Shannah, why don’t we jump back to you and talk about, how you got started in the public service?

Shannah: Yeah! So actually Sheena and I started on the same day.

Sean: No way! Outstanding!

Shannah: It’s been about four and a half years now, it’ll be five years in April.

I entered a competition; basically how I found out about the Ontario Digital Service was – I used to run a company, I had my own company, with two outstanding partners. It was a user experience, design and strategy consultancy firm. It was quite small, about 20 people. We ran it for a pretty long time, about 15 years.

But then markets changed, enterprises changed, and small businesses in that sort of agency field were getting fewer; many of them got bought by other companies, et cetera, and it sort of came to pass that from a business perspective it was looking like we would’ve had to change a lot of our business model to remain viable. Also we had been doing it for 15 years! Running an entrepreneurial small business for that long can be quite exhausting.

So it was sort of, time to move on. And the question in my mind was: what do I do afterwards? Because it was a bit of a career-changing moment, or at least a moment of examination and reflection. Like, it felt very much like one chapter was ending; what was the next chapter going to be?

And I thought about the kind of work that I really liked doing when we were consultants, and it tended to fall into the philanthropic, education, social enterprise realm. We did a lot of work for for-profit industry as well like travel, airlines, tourism, retail, financial… most of it was financial, to be totally honest, since that’s where the money is. But that wasn’t as satisfying as the other stuff we did. So the question was: how can I gear the rest of my working life to something that had more social impact?

So I started looking into organizations that were in the not-for-profit realm, and then coincidentally at the same time – because our company had shut down – all my colleagues landed in different spots, and a few of them landed in the OPS [Ontario Public Service] and the ODS was kind of, just at the end of its first year by then, so they were on a growth path. Through coffee chats I met some of the folks who used to work at my company and who were now working at ODS, and that was my intro.

I went through the very long competition process – which took forever – which was a complete shock to me. Like, what?! Four months? And then I learned afterwards that four months was like lightning speed for recruitment.

Sean: Such a good point!

Shannah: And that’s how I ended up here. I liked the ethos. I met Hillary and was immediately star-struck, so that was great. There was a big focus on servant leadership, at the time, that was very very important. And that’s how I ended up here!

Sean: That’s so cool, that’s awesome. Sheena, how about yourself? How did you get started – starting on the same day!

Sheena: It’s been an exciting journey. Looking back, my story is slightly different in that I was working in tech companies in leadership at different levels.

I had some experience working in more than six industries, including finance and tech. I’ve worked in a large organization with a narrowly defined role, and then pivoted to a startup environment where you get to do everything on your own. I realized then that while I enjoyed the fast pace I really needed time to think. This led me to define the type of role, pace and breadth that suited me. That led me to ODS.

Sean: Cool, for sure.

Sheena: I was passively looking for interesting opportunities with the phrase “servant leadership” and ODS jumped out.

Sean: Nice!

Sheena: I was like, this looks interesting!

I was all excited seeing the job description, then the Medium blog, and was like, wow! And the one thing that clicked then was: it’s the government. I just clicked on the site and it redirected to their government jobs website, and I was like …uh-oh!

Shannah: But you still applied!

Sheena: Yes! The fact that the job resonated – putting the fact that it was government aside – I thought, let’s give it a chance, see how it goes, and, as a result, I was pleasantly surprised.

I met with Hillary and was inspired by her vision for digital transformation. And the work! I think the work was really interesting too in that it was very much about scaling. So there was a role that aligned with my skills and a unique challenge in a sector that was new to me.

Servant leadership and scale, those were the things that brought me here.

Sean: That’s super super cool. It’s really cool to hear people’s starting points into this work in government, I find super fascinating.

Shannah: And yeah! Both of us were a little unique, like, neither of us have had any jobs outside the ODS (in government). Our perception might be coloured by that!

Sean: That’s super legit, for sure! Why don’t we jump to the next question, tell us about an inspiring or memorable moment in your public service career?

Shannah: Yeah, wow. There’s been so many, I mean, that’s actually a really hard question.

Sean: Sorry!

Shannah: There’s a lot of small moments. One thing I realized is, working in government is more about the cumulative small moments than it’s about, like, some big bang, since those don’t tend to happen that often.

It’s really more like, incremental change slowly over time, and then you can look back and see, oh wow, we really made a difference.

That said, I will say that joining and then two years later – maybe not even two years later – entering the pandemic, was a real eye-opener. I had wanted to do work that makes an impact and that is meaningful to society, and then, like, bang. I was in the Ontario Together “we have to get gloves to every single hospital now –

Sean: Wow, yeah. That’s real heavy.

Shannah: Yeah. I was kind of not thinking that much impact, but, it happened! So that was quite a journey.

We were working on all the procurement of PPE, and the digital tools that would help source and distribute all of those, and you really did feel like you were making a difference. Because it was like: I’m helping get this sanitizer and masks and, unfortunately, heart machines and body bags from factories to hospitals. And you really felt like you were right in it. I think that was definitely part of it.

But then if I was going to look at something that was more of that, looking back over time, a thing that was really great – I’m going to have to go with the design system. We have an Ontario Design System which is a digital tool that helps all the designers – and all teams across the government – make things that are consistent and use the same visual standards and use the same code, all that kind of stuff.

Sean: Really big fan.

Shannah: That was a side-of-desk co-op project in my first year, and now it’s a fully-functional product team with proper release cycles and full-time staff and the whole thing. And four years (for that) is not that bad. It’s a lot of achievement for four years.

Those are two moments that I’d point to.

Sean: Cool, that’s awesome. Sheena, how about you?

Sheena: Very similar to Shannah – we worked on similar products side by side, so we have similar stories. Design system stands out to me too, when it started it was small and scrappy.

One thing looking back we recognize that – those two years before the pandemic were crucial to letting us scale, by building that bench strength. You don’t necessarily see that; by the time it arrived we had the people, skills, and the vision.

Nobody planned for the pandemic. However, we had that agility and strength, and that’s mainly because there was some groundwork laid. Not just by us, but our predecessors as well. We reused our learnings and rebuilt products – that helped get us there. The biggest work was actually around our talent.

The other example I’d have is Verify Ontario. I appreciate the public side of it, seeing the announcements. But it was more than that, seeing a team come together for meaningful work, and they’re all proud at the end, saying, it’s what their kid was talking about when they went to a restaurant, proud that their mom built it, that kind of thing. Stories like that are more important to me as they resonate deeply about the type of work we do: work that touches Ontarians every day.

Shannah: All the stuff we did during the pandemic was so impactful. Like the self-assessment screener, the school screeners… all those things that we saw people using every single day. We were like, wow, you know, we helped build those. That was pretty mind-blowing really, when you thought about it.

Sean: Like seeing your work out in the world in a way more tangible way than a lot of typical government stuff, eh?

Shannah: Totally.

Sean: And Sheena I feel like that was a really good point too, like in a crisis situation like the pandemic, that’s when you’re seeing the benefits of building a team, building up talent capacity, building tooling – that suddenly, even if it wasn’t super obvious how valuable that would be beforehand, then you see that in that moment, right?

Sheena: We were fortunate to have a two-year headstart prior to the pandemic to learn and unlearn many things, from talent, the skills, and the understanding of government basics. Had we not had those crucial two years, who knows?

Shannah: The other thing about the pandemic was: people really felt shoulder-to-shoulder. It was kind of ironic that at the one time when you couldn’t actually be together, is when we felt the most attached to each other. It was interesting.

Sean: For sure, I definitely feel that too.

Sheena: I would add one more piece to it: agility, that was the key, not just for us. We were moving quickly, and we found how the government moved to execute on time. There was clear direction that asked everyone to get in line. It was very nice to work with peers we’ve never worked with in the past. It was rare to see everything aligned top-down and bottom-up.

Sean: I think we had some similar experiences, where we were like: this is how fast – across a lot of organizations, a lot of parts of government – seeing how fast people can move when it’s needed is pretty impressive.

Shannah: Yeah, interestingly – those approval chains? Like, wow did they disappear fast. Which just kind of goes to show…!

Sean: Totally. Why don’t we jump to the last question – if there’s one thing that you could change about the government or the public service, like waving a magic wand, what would that be?

Sheena: Perception. People’s perception of government, versus our own perception of ourselves, I think they’re both distorted sometimes. You can see that in a lot of the press around app development right now, like, “I could have done it in a hackathon on a weekend”. Sure you can! But can you get through a series of rigorous approval processes fast?

And then our own perception of ourselves – we don’t give ourselves room and credit for the difficult environment. But, it is a difficult environment, not just translating, like, private sector concepts here. It’s a different way of working. Private sector is driven by profits. We’re driven by a different currency.

I think those two things: getting better at our own perception of ourselves, and the public’s, helping with that.

Sean: That’s a really great perspective.

Shannah: I think what I would say is: I’ve got to think of a gender-neutral way to say this, but, the concept of “statesmanship” seems to be less important now than maybe it was historically.

And I guess another way to say it would maybe be stewardship, since, “statesman” is too man-ish, I guess.

Sean: Bit of an old-fashioned word!

Shannah: But what I find would be really positive was if our orientation was really to the future. Like, we need to steward our services, our people, our society. We need to think, not in terms of what’s happening right now, or next week, or the next election.

We need to be thinking of the generation that comes ahead. How do we move forward in a way that is cognizant of the many changes and vagaries of society that we’re going to encounter. How might we be prepared to deal with something as impactful as a pandemic, again.

I think we did a really great job, but there was scrambling. And of course there’s always going to be scrambling, but if there was a sense of stewardship, and sense of caretaking – and if that was more important to us than announceables or initiatives – I feel like that would be a vision that would be very attractive not only to people working inside the public service but to the general public as well.

Sean: That’s awesome.

Shannah: That’s what I would love to see. I’d love to see more of an attitude of stewardship.

Sean: Yeah. And sort of that, thinking to the long-term as a core part of our job as public servants.

Shannah: Yeah.

Sheena: I have an add-on, maybe, this is a perception and stewardship kind of thing. When you think of data from a public perspective it’s like “you’re all siloed, you never talk to each other.” “Talk to each other! Be better at talking to each other!” You hear a lot of that, as if it’s that simple.

Stewardship in the long run is about examining policies that were set up at some point in time to serve a specific purpose, which was effective then, but, perhaps, not now. Barnacles of bureaucracy that need to be slowly cleared, starting with understanding why they exist.

Shannah: And I think – I can totally appreciate why some things do need to be very pedantic, and very approval-driven. Because we are dealing sometimes with matters of public safety or security. You don’t want to rush into some of these types of decisions.

Sean: People’s privacy, stuff like that.

Shannah: But I think it fits in the stewardship narrative. Like, when we need to take the time to do something, we should. We should not be swayed by, like, “do it faster!” But on the other hand, we would be better stewards sometimes if we could recognize when something doesn’t have to be, like, overly complicated or onerous.

Sean: 100%. That’s a great way of putting it.

Sheena: Culture is another aspect. For those easy, small, quick wins, it’s about that willingness to test a hypothesis. Let’s test, experiment, and learn.

Shannah: I think we tend to get a little shy about testing things, because it could be seen as a failure, and not as an experiment.

Sheena: That’s the piece that digital services have been doing successfully across the globe. It doesn’t apply to every problem. But sometimes we use one rule for everything and try to paint it with the same brush. The pandemic was a good example – there were some cases where the risk was low and the return high. Testing hypotheses and then moving forward is something we could do better at in a lot more places.

Sean: For sure. This is perfect, I think those are really great thoughts to end on – thanks so much!